Thursday, December 26, 2013

When Christmas Wishes Come True

I woke early on Christmas morning, perhaps an hour or so before sunrise.

I don't know why I have fallen into this pattern of rising early, but it has been that way of late. It is the only reason why I would be up before dawn on Christmas. I am no longer a child, eager to unwrap my Christmas gifts. I am an adult, living alone. There were no gifts under the tree for me to unwrap. Fact is, there was no tree.

But I was up, and it was Christmas, and that was cause for a little reflection. Good as any, I suppose.

I grew up in Arkansas, but I've spent most of the Christmases of my life here in Dallas. There have been a few exceptions but not many. My parents were born and raised here, and my grandparents lived here when I was a child. My father was a college professor, which meant he was off from his job at roughly the same time my brother and I were off from school so it made sense for the whole family to pack up and head for Dallas and an extended holiday with the grands (grandmothers, mostly — both of my grandfathers were deceased before I turned 10).

A few of the exceptions I mentioned were when I was about 10 or 11 years old. We drove to Dallas on those occasions, too, but we had our family Christmas a couple of days ahead of the actual day, then drove to South Padre Island at the southern tip of Texas where we spent three or four days soaking up the south Texas sun and playing on the beach.

One or two adults traveling in an average vehicle probably could make that trip in eight or nine hours, stopping only for gas, the occasional bathroom break and perhaps a takeout burger. But we were a family of four with two dogs and one of those popup camper/trailer rigs hitched to the car. We frequently stopped along the way, my parents concluded that stopping for sit–down meals rather than takeout was best (it wasn't as potentially messy even though it took longer), and we couldn't really build up a high rate of speed when we were on the road so it usually took us 11 or 12 hours to reach our destination.

For a variety of reasons, we only made this trip about three times. As I recall, the last time we went down there, we arrived in brilliant sunshine and were in high spirits after putting up the camper and preparing to bed down for the night. During the night, though, a heavy rainstorm moved into the area and pounded the area for a couple of days. Finally, my parents decided enough was enough, and we packed up the trailer in the rain and made a beeline for my maternal grandmother's home. As we were making that long drive, we heard the radio report that the storm was the heaviest to strike the area in decades, perhaps a century.

We also heard there were reports of recreational boats lost at sea. That was the last time my family made a trip to South Padre Island.

But I recall that, just before we made our first or second trip to south Texas, I received probably the best Christmas present of my young life — an electric football set. (Actually, it may be better than any Christmas gift I have received since.)

I already had an electric football set. I had wanted one ever since a neighbor and playmate got one a few years earlier, and my parents had given me one, but his was better. It was like the picture shown above, with the players wearing genuine pro football uniforms and helmets, and there was a scoreboard with what appeared to be crowds of fans in the stands.

By comparison, my set was rather bare bones.

My set had no such detail. The players for one team were all red, from their heads to their feet, and the players for the other team were blue, from their heads to their feet. My friend's set looked like it had inch–tall football players, football cards come to life (I was an avid football card collector in those days); mine looked like two teams of plastic figures, no different from the mass–produced plastic green soldiers I played with when I was younger.

There was no scoreboard, either. Well, actually, I think there was something that was supposed to be like a scoreboard, but it was all so generic. My friend's set came with two teams — it was possible to order additional teams, in their home and/or road uniforms —and it had punch–out team names so it was possible to change the name of the team(s) on the scoreboard, too.

When the teams were mailed, the company included tiny sets of numbers that the recipient could apply to the players if desired.

A couple of my playmates had a brother who was about six years older than us, and he had a whole collection of those NFL teams, in their home and away uniforms, on display in his bedroom. He had put numbers on all the players — and not randomly, either. The numbers corresponded with the players who played for the teams.

I remember looking at them from time to time with a sense of awe and wonder.

Looking back on it, there was nothing wrong with the first electric football set I got. It's just that the other was so much better in my eyes. I dutifully played with the first set for a couple of years, but I never got over wanting the one with the authentic–looking players and the scoreboard.

And, when I was about 10 or 11, I finally got it for Christmas.

The teams weren't the hot teams of the day — although they did considerably better in later years — but they looked authentic.

They weren't just red and blue figures.

I think I will always remember that adrenaline rush I felt on Christmas morning (we actually stayed at my grandmother's house for Christmas before embarking on our journey to south Texas that year) when I unwrapped the electric football set. But alas! I couldn't enjoy playing with it yet. The family had to pack up the car for an early departure for South Padre Island that next morning, and most of the Christmas gifts (including my electric football set) had to stay behind.

So, for the next three days, I could only fantasize about playing with my electric football set. For a 10– or 11–year–old boy, it was sheer agony. I thought about that football set while I played on the beach during the day, then I dreamed about it at night.

I don't know if the reality ever lived up to the fantasy, but I know I played with that set for a few years before I tired of it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


As 1968 was drawing to a close, rational people probably would have been happy to get as far away from earth as they could — if such a thing was possible.

By just about any measure that year, the planet was in turmoil as the Christmas season approached.

Three Americans — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders — had such an opportunity. NASA was going to launch its first manned mission to orbit the moon, and those three men had been selected to make the flight. They would be gone from Dec. 21 to Dec. 27, which meant they would have to be away from their homes and families on Christmas.

But, as I say, in 1968, such an opportunity would have been welcome for most people — and, after a three–day journey, the astronauts arrived at their destination. They made 10 orbits of the moon, during which they did a Christmas Eve broadcast from space (at the time, the most–watched television program ever) and Anders took a famous photograph called "Earthrise," depicting the earth "rising" above the moon, before embarking on the voyage home.

Actually, many photos were taken of the earthrise. The first, in black and white, was taken by Borman, the mission commander. Many others followed.

It was eventually determined that the one that would serve as the representative image was taken by Anders, the lunar module commander.

In many ways, the woes of 2013 don't really seem to compare to the woes of 1968.

Then, as now, there were American soldiers fighting on foreign soil, but the war in southeast Asia had been going badly since the beginning of 1968, when the Tet offensive persuaded many Americans that there was no hope of winning in Vietnam.

Americans are polarized today as they were 45 years ago, but the divisions we face in 2013 don't seem nearly as insurmountable as they did in 1968, when leaders were being shot down and protestors clashed with police in the streets of major cities.

But Apollo 8 — through its Christmas Eve broadcast and its iconic "Earthrise" photo — gave America and the world a boost when they needed it most.

Our problems may or may not be as severe as the ones of 1968, but we could use another boost like that today.

Don't you think?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Princess Diana: Case Closed?

Perhaps a handful of people — but no more than that — have been as wildly popular in my lifetime as Princess Diana, who died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel in 1997.

She was popular long before her death, a living icon of the late 20th century, and I have always thought that the overwhelming sense of loss that people experienced fueled the rampant speculation that some sort of sinister conspiracy was to blame. Perhaps it was the unfairness of the loss of one so young that people couldn't accept. She was, after all, only 36. There had to be a comprehensible reason for it.

It is, therefore, appropriate that an official conclusion on whether Diana was murdered was issued less than a month after the 50th anniversary of the death of another prominent person that has long been at the heart of conspiracy theory stories — John F. Kennedy.

Ever since Diana died, there have been persistent rumors — helped along by the man who would have been her father–in–law, Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al–Fayed — that England–s elite Special Air Service played a role in the crash.

The rumor has had more credibility at some times than others, but I'm inclined to think maybe this will put the lid on it — unless evidence surfaces linking the SAS to the crash.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Last Flight of Pan Am 103

When this day dawned 25 years ago, Americans really weren't thinking much about terrorism.

We were naive about what was happening in the rest of the world. We had been through the hostage crisis in Iran, but it ended with no loss of life — except for a few servicemen who died in an aborted rescue attempt — and we had gone through the next several years without any disruptions in our daily lives.

There were isolated instances of terrorism that involved some Americans, but they were few and relatively far between. In the 1980s, it had been easy for Americans to pretend that the world's problems were not our own.

That is ... it was easy until 25 years ago today when a Pan Am flight, en route from London to New York, was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Lockerbie is a tiny town in southwest Scotland. It has existed for more than 1,000 years, but few people ever heard of it until Dec. 21, 1988 when debris from Pan Am Flight 103 rained down on it. Eleven residents of Lockerbie died along with the 259 people on board the flight. Americans accounted for more than two–thirds of the casualties.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi took responsibility for the bombing and paid compensation to the victims' families but denied ordering the attack.

In part because of that ambiguity, there have been a number of persistent questions about the bombing that have gained some traction with the public over the years. There are many who believe the whole story will never be known, and I am one of them.

After 25 years, what is known is relatively little, and both emotion and speculation have been rampant at times.

It has been fairly well established that a suitcase bomb detonated on the plane, sending it back to earth, and the record will show that a Libyan intelligence agent, Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, was tried and convicted in connection with it.

But that is about the extent of it.

Much like the Kennedy assassination 50 years ago, there were elements of the event that looked suspicious. Many of them may have been coincidental, but, after all the time that has passed, it seems unlikely that we will ever know the truth.

For example, one thing that has never been satisfactorily explained (as far as I am concerned, anyway) is the fact that there were at least four officials from the U.S. government who were on board the plane. According to unconfirmed rumors, there was actually a fifth official on the plane.

One of those officials was with the CIA. Another was with the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) — two others were Diplomatic Security Service agents acting as bodyguards.

Perhaps their presence on the plane was a coincidence, but it is easy to see how a conspiracy theory could come from it. There had been several confrontations between the U.S. Navy and Libya in the Gulf of Sidra (which Libya claimed as its territorial waters) during the 1980s. The Libyans avenged some incidents, but Gadhafi harbored a lingering resentment for what he saw as ongoing acts of aggression against Libya by the French and Americans.

Perhaps the bombing of Flight 103 was intended to avenge a perceived act of aggression.

Megrahi was the only person ever tried for the bombing, and he was given a compassionate release from prison in 2009 because he had terminal prostate cancer and was only expected to live for three months. The decision generated some controversy, which was revisited when Megrahi survived the prognosis by a couple of years.

Gadhafi died more than two years ago. Megrahi died in 2012. If they had anything more to tell us, they took it to their graves.

The mystery surrounding what happened to Flight 103 continues.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Passing of Nelson Mandela

"I was not a messiah but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."

Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95, and I have been struggling over what to write about that.

It really seems as if I said all I wanted to say five months ago when the world braced itself for this moment. At that time, to borrow a famous line from Mark Twain, any reports of Mandela's imminent death seemed to have been "greatly exaggerated." Nevertheless, many people the world over began to accept the idea that Mandela was not immortal, that death would come to him eventually as it must to all men.

Mandela emerged from that experience and lived to observe his 95th birthday a few weeks later. Turned out it was his last.

Whatever one's opinion of his politics, it must be said of Nelson Mandela that he was resilient. I think everyone could agree on that.

From there, you could expand your remarks to include additional adjectives with which others might or might not agree. But no one could say that a man who spent nearly three decades in prison for what was widely seen as a quixotic quest to rid South Africa of white minority rule was not resilient.

It was that very resiliency, I'm sure, that prompted so many of his countrymen to resist the idea that he was dying last summer. And their faith was rewarded by what I (and, I am sure, many others) felt was a miraculous recovery.

But the season of miracles held no miracles for Nelson Mandela. His legacy will forever be the miracle in which he played a part in South Africa long before the arrival of this Christmas season.

That would be plenty, but what I will always remember, what I will always appreciate the most about Mandela is his commitment to constitutional government, peace, freedom, democracy, those bedrock values that define the character of the United States and all the countries in the world that have sought to live up to its example.

Not that the United States is perfect, but it makes its transitions of power peacefully, no matter the circumstances. And that is precisely what Mandela sought to achieve when he became South Africa's first black president. He and F.W. de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their transition from apartheid to a democratic South Africa.

Mandela was elected president of South Africa once, then chose not to seek a second term. Like George Washington in my own country, Mandela believed that, like the United States, South Africa would benefit from periodically changing its leadership.

He retired from the presidency but not from his involvement in the direction his country was taking.

After all his years in prison, Mandela could have used his position as president to seek retribution. He didn't. He could have used his position to seize power indefinitely and essentially become a dictator. He didn't.

In the New York Times, Lydia Polgreen writes that, with Mandela's death, South Africa is left "without its moral center at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the country's leaders."

You could say the same thing of the rest of the world.